Influenced: Cerrone, Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Devo, Talking Heads, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, New Order, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, U2, Daft Punk, Air, The Beta Band, Goldfrapp, Four Tet, Soulwax, Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Gold Panda, Jon Hopkins, George FitzGerald, Rival Consoles
Influenced by: Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Can, Tangerine Dream
Although Autobahn and its title track had provided a public breakthrough in late 1974, Kraftwerk had been without a hit for over three years at the time they were constructing The Man-Machine. It should have been comparatively easy, given the relative novelty of the synthesiser sound and also how super-producer Giorgio Moroder was churning out megahit after megahit at the time, for them to replicate the 1974 success of ‘Autobahn’. But Kraftwerk, never bending to the temptations of convenience, never did things the easy way.
1977’s Trans-Europe Express had proven to be an enormous leap forwards in terms of Kraftwerk’s artistry, their first undisputed full-length masterpiece and a thematically coherent record in love with travel and the European continent. However, its influence was limited at the time, charting low around most of the world like its predecessor Radio-Activity and not really making any impact on the pop scene for at least another half-decade. Its follow-up album released in May 1978, The Man-Machine, also the first to co-credit Karl Bartos as a formal band member, would take Kraftwerk from a strictly cult affair to something rather more widely discussed.
READ MORE: Kraftwerk // ‘Trans-Europe Express’ at 40 years old
On The Man-Machine, Kraftwerk chose to explore science fiction themes, and specifically the nature of the relationship between humans and technology, which have converged like never before in 2018. It presages the increasingly prevalence of robotics and tech in society, both in terms of human leisure time (dating, gaming, sports) and in other, more critical life-and-death matters like healthcare and work. It was a theme that they’d develop further on 1981’s Computer World, but the foundations for it were laid down here.
Kraftwerk’s desire to engage with this theme is closely linked to the group’s identity, both as the image of themselves they wanted to project to the world, and as West Germans born in the aftermath of the Second World War. The earliest popular perceptions of robotics come from Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novels, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, and the etymology of ‘robot’ is in the Czech word for ‘drudgery’, as in the repetitious performance of arduous or menial tasks. But underlying the concept of ‘robotics’ from the very start was a de-humanising aspect, something that would become particularly chilling with the real-life, ideological dehumanisation experienced by people living under the yoke of WW2 totalitarian regimes like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.
In utilising these kinds of imagery and visual signifiers, barely three decades after the war’s end, Kraftwerk (all born between 1946 and 1952) could have left themselves open to accusations of insensitivity, but the execution of both image and music on The Man-Machine was thought-provoking, lightly subversive and often playful. Freighted with their country’s recent history, many artists of Kraftwerk’s generation thought it their duty to move German culture away from the connotations of the war years, to forge something new.
In co-opting these reference points from the 1920s and 1930s – a lost time in German culture, erased by totalitarianism and war – and pointing them towards a more optimistic vision, welcoming a relationship between man and machine, they were seeking to construct and to create, rather than simply play around with imagery for their own amusement.
The Man-Machine provided a satirical, cautious but ultimately utopian commentary on the modes of societal and economic production of the 1970s, with nations now industrialised, rationalised and geared towards mass production and convenience. As Kraftwerk’s co-founder Florian Schneider explained in a contemporary interview, man’s relationship with machinery was neither subservient nor dominant. “It’s rather a more sophisticated relationship. There is an interaction… on both sides. The machine helps the man, and the man admires the machine. [Showing the interviewer his tape recorder] This is the extension of your brain. It helps you remembering. It’s the third man sitting at this table.”
The whole idea of Kraftwerk as a ‘living artwork’ comes from the conceptual leap that they made for The Man-Machine. Developing the idea that they had laid out in ‘Showroom Dummies’ from Trans-Europe Express the previous year – namely, playing upon the popular perception of the group as cold, emotionless and stereotypically Teutonic – they created life-like replicas of themselves as part of the promotional campaign. Each of the band members, in turn, adopted the identical red shirt and black tie uniform, severely-cut hairstyle and pasty-white make-up for their stage performances, so that both man and machine looked unnervingly similar to one another. When shots of the band performing, alongside footage of their dummies ‘performing’ the same music, were intercut for a promo film for ‘The Robots’ that year, people found themselves right in the middle of the uncanny valley.
Quite aside from the radically different image, this was the foundation of a completely new performance idiom, as groups who wanted to affect an air of cold, even ironic detachment from their music would stand stock-still, gazing out expressionlessly from behind their instruments. This was also replicated on The Man-Machine’s front cover, unquestionably one of the most iconic pieces of album artwork in pop history. Indebted to the modernist look of Russian constructivist visual designer El Lissitzky with its stern, stylised font, it features the four Kraftwerk members in the aforementioned uniform, standing in profile, facing left, as if gazing fearlessly towards the future.
While little of it hits the dynamic and forceful peaks of Trans-Europe Express, a record that sounded startlingly different to virtually everything else in the Year That Punk Broke, The Man-Machine is instead unified by a general, overarching beauty in its production values. In fitting with the technological themes of the album, Ralf Hütter’s lyrics tend to be even shorter and mechanical than ever before, and almost always disguised by vocoders to sound robotic. The sparsity of those lyrics serves to emphasise the record’s fine, intricate sonic structures. The rhythms were much more overtly danceable than before, and the arrangements were noticeably fuller and richer, compared to sometimes spindly and minimalist productions on 1976’s Radio-Activity.
Opening track ‘The Robots’ has long since become Kraftwerk’s own kind of unofficial ‘theme song’, its straight-faced gambit basically being a wry, humorous commentary on the android-like image that lazy, sniffy critics had lumbered them with. Intoning at the end of each verse and chorus and in pitched-down Russian “ja tvoi sluga / ja tvoi Rabotnik” – [translated as “I’m your slave / I’m your worker”] – it’s impossible not to crack a smile at the in-joke they’re playing.
The theme of the cyberorganism, the human-machine hybrid, is replicated throughout The Man-Machine, most notably in its closing title track. ‘The Man-Machine’ seems to hint at a long-running strand of German intellectual thought, that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s übermensch theory of the 19th century, which found disturbing echoes in Nazi ideology. Again, potentially dangerous waters for Kraftwerk to be sailing in, but their take on the theory was that human improvement could only be realised through increased intermeshing with machines, rather than the vile racial connotations of Nietzsche. Its metronomic, Morse-code-like rhythm taps out throughout the song as a simple vocal repeated “the man machine” makes its way up the octaves – memorably dubbed ‘android doo-wop’ by Simon Reynolds years later.
In between these two tracks dealing with humans and hybridisation that bookend The Man-Machine, there are four lush pieces that explore tangentially related topics, such as the glamour of urbanisation and the rise of celebrity culture. The all-but-instrumental ‘Spacelab’ is a gorgeous, tone-drenched delight, which bears more than a slight resemblance to the lush, pioneering hits of the aforementioned Giorgio Moroder at the same time – although, obviously, without the requisite vocals to make it even vaguely a chart contender. Furthermore, while it does share a Euro-disco pulse, it also lacks the sexual drive of Moroder’s floor-fillers. ‘Metropolis’, the album’s other sort of-instrumental, has that same, seductive darkness in its rhythms, but overlaid with a gracious synth melody.
Borne aloft on a hopelessly addictive and moody-sounding melody and a throbbing bass framework to kick off the album’s second side, ‘The Model’ was so far ahead of its time that it wouldn’t become a hit for over three years, when issued as an AA-side with ‘Computer Love’ in late 1981, topping the UK Singles Chart early the following year. Unusually for Kraftwerk, it’s a short, pop-song structure lasting under four minutes telling a narrative story of a female fashion model who “drinks just champagne” and her life in the constant scrutiny of the public eye (“it only takes a camera to change her mind”). Just like so many of Kraftwerk’s songs, it anticipates the future – in this case, the obsession with celebrity culture that exploded in the Nineties, but it’s Hütter’s strange fascination for his subject that makes ‘The Model’ such a memorable moment.
This is followed by one of Kraftwerk’s most brilliantly original songs, the nine-minute oasis of calm created by ‘Neon Lights’. It’s a critical point in their catalogue, because it absolutely perfectly demolishes two of the laziest critical clichés which, unbelievably, even decades later, are still thrown in Kraftwerk’s direction – namely, that all their music sounds the same, and that their music is cold, expressionless and lacks soul. Both of these betray extreme ignorance and narrow-mindedness on the part of the person making them, an assumption that music must come from the blues tradition and have a verse-chorus-verse structure to evoke emotion.
Just like Jonathan Richman in ‘Roadrunner’, driving along his Massachusetts freeway with the radio on and brought to tears by the vistas of pylons and suburban houses that he found such beauty in, Ralf Hütter is completely, utterly in love with the modern world on ‘Neon Lights’, his yearning vocals almost failing to do justice to his palpable sense of wanderlust at the coffee bars, night clubs, illuminated facades and “shimmering” lights of the city as dusk descends. As if there are no words to describe what he really feels, it’s left to the soaring synthesisers to essay his emotions. Perhaps it’s just because Hütter’s vocals are not masked with vocoders, but along with ‘The Model’, ‘Neon Lights’ represents a rather more human moment in what’s an otherwise very purposefully cold record.
A strong Romantic streak has always guided Kraftwerk’s music – you can hear it in the awestruck ‘Europe Endless’ on Trans-Europe Express, and again – but deeper than that, ‘Neon Lights’ and The Man-Machine in general spoke to a deeper, driving desire for Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider to give voice to where they were from, the industrial Rhine-Ruhr zone. They saw themselves as trying to forge a folk music for the city – in Hütter’s own words, “we kind of liked industrial production and we had this vision of our music being like the voice of this industrial product. Germany has no popular music.” Indeed, an increasing percentage of the globe’s population, even in the developing world, is living in cities, something that’s still a comparatively new condition for humankind. Perhaps that’s why Kraftwerk’s music, essaying that semi-alienated condition of convenience and being surrounded by technology that enslaves as much as it liberates, has grown so hugely in stature since it was released 40 years ago.
However, there’s a more surface-level explanation for The Man-Machine’s appeal. Its true genius lies not only in its undeniably massive influence, but also in its ability to achieve so much with such an economical outlay. Beats, rhythm and synthesisers interlock with an almost Zen-like mastery, and Kraftwerk sound like they’re not even breaking a sweat. It was that cool, passive sense of detachment and clinical execution that would become a highly sought-after quantity in the subsequent decades of pop.
The Man-Machine’s legacy is slightly different to that of previous Kraftwerk albums, as it’s much closer to the sound and visuals that would soon define the first wave of electro-pop that would emerge by the close of the 1970s. From post-punk and new-wave bands like Talking Heads and Devo to the swathes of bands who utilised synthesisers throughout the Eighties, from subversives like Cabaret Voltaire to more commercial acts like Depeche Mode and even the New Romantic movement, Kraftwerk’s vision on The Man-Machine would be an integral blueprint. Furthermore, the cold and mechanical funk that underpinned tracks like ‘The Man-Machine’ and ‘The Robots’ would be replicated in the DNA of early hip-hop.
READ MORE: Kraftwerk // ‘Autobahn’ at 40 years old
The Man-Machine was also the first Kraftwerk album to truly become a hit. In February 1982, shortly after the group became re-discovered in the wake of the success of ‘The Model’, the album hit the gold certification of 100,000 sales in the UK and entered the Top Ten, while also selling healthily throughout Europe. An American hit still eluded them, but that would all change in the wake of their extensive U.S. tour for Computer World half a decade later.
While it isn’t quite as influential as its predecessor Trans-Europe Express – in fairness, there’s very few albums indeed that are – The Man-Machine often equals it in terms of thematic coherence and flat-out sonic beauty. It’s also the second instalment in a holy trinity of Kraftwerk albums that would change the course of music history forever.
Listen to The Man-Machine by Kraftwerk here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 40 years old, 40th anniversary, Ed Biggs, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk, Phillips, Ralf Hutter, The Man Machine, Wolfgang Flur
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